Eastern Kentucky town becomes a ‘powder keg’ as questions loom about unsolved murder

Ghent Combs was furious.

While attending a July press conference in front of the Floyd County courthouse, Combs found out a member of his community, 39-year-old Amber Spradlin, was brutally murdered.

As a family member read from a medical examiner’s report stating Spradlin had been stabbed at least 11 times, Combs felt “a fury come over me.”

“It was weird. It was making me think that was my sister. It was making me think that was my daughter,” Combs said. “... I’ve never felt that.”

He didn’t know Spradlin very well. They had only briefly met a couple of times when she came in as a customer at the CBD and hemp shop Combs owns. Still, he was determined to help however he could.

He turned his shop into a central location where anyone can come through and pick up a yard sign or sticker demanding “Justice for Amber.”

While not on every street corner, the signs can be found throughout the community and the sticker on many a car bumper. Brandon Martin, one of Spradlin’s family members, said he’s mailed stickers across the state and as far as Arizona. News of the murder has attracted some national media coverage and rapidly filled a “Justice for Amber” Facebook group with over 19,000 members in three months.

“There’s people that I’ve never met before that’s contacting me, asking if there’s anything we can do and praying for us and stuff,” Martin said. “This town is very upset. It’s a powder keg.”

The Grey Area, a shop selling hemp and CBD products in Prestonsburg, has become a hub to receive “Justice for Amber” stickers and yard signs. Rick Childress/
The Grey Area, a shop selling hemp and CBD products in Prestonsburg, has become a hub to receive “Justice for Amber” stickers and yard signs. Rick Childress/

No arrests have been made, as of late September. Public officials, Spradlin’s family members, other media reports and the general public have routinely said Spradlin’s body was found by police at the home of a local business owner and have used his name in connection with the murder.

The Herald-Leader is not naming the business owner as he has not been charged in the case.

But as investigators have worked to build a worthy criminal case, the murder has sparked a roiling local political debate over the county’s 911 system.

Robbie Williams, the judge-executive in Floyd County, sent a September 8 letter to Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s office asking that a special prosecutor be brought in on the case, citing intensive public scrutiny and concerns that some of those working on the case may have their own conflicts of interest.

“Still, many Floyd County citizens are expressing skepticism over social media and in coffee shops about whether Amber and her family will receive justice,” Williams wrote in the letter. “Some fear there are too many personal conflicts among those responsible for seeking justice — and those possibly involved with her murder.”

The attorney general’s office denied the request but not before the request garnered opposition from the Spradlin family and Brent Turner, the commonwealth’s attorney in Floyd County and the case’s current prosecutor.

“There was never any question that this request would be denied because Robbie Williams has no more authority to request a special prosecutor than the dog catcher does,” Turner said in a statement. “Additionally, my office has no conflict and the family is adamant that they want my office to continue handling the case. The County Judge needs to worry about doing his own job. If we need a load of gravel, or if the toilet gets stopped up at the senior citizens center, we’ll call him. But when it comes to murder cases, he needs to leave that the team of professional investigators and prosecutors to handle.”

What led up to the murder?

The night before Spradlin’s body was found, according to her family, she was working her job in a local restaurant and met a friend after her shift. They went to the Seasons Inn, a local motel and restaurant, then ended their night at the home of a Prestonsburg business owner whom she knew. An unknown number of people also were present at the home.

Two 911 calls were made from the residence. One call was made at about 5:20 a.m. June 18 and received no response from emergency personnel, said Brandon Martin, a family member of Spradlin who has listened to the calls. Neither call was made by Spradlin and her voice wasn’t on either call, he said.

According to Williams’ letter to the Attorney General, the second call came a little after 10 a.m. and was made by the homeowner, who reported that Spradlin’s body was in his home and that he believed she had been murdered. Law enforcement responded and found her body. She was stabbed at least 11 times.

Where is the investigation at now?

Since her body was found, investigators have had to take a time-consuming route to gathering evidence after an early roadblock, Turner told the Herald-Leader in an August interview.

Turner declined to name specific individuals but did say that some of the “key people” won’t talk to police or cooperate with the investigation.

“Any time you have that, that creates a roadblock,” Turner said.

To build a strong case, Turner said investigators have sought out a large amount of forensic evidence. As of late August, well over 70 search warrants have been executed and they were approaching nearly 100 witness interviews. They’ve also submitted search warrants, subpoenas and preservation letters to “every conceivable” cell phone carrier, social media and messaging platform.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve never been involved with a case where (state police) have done more work in this amount of time,” Turner said.

Hundreds of items have been collected, many to be searched for fingerprint or DNA evidence, Turner said, adding that it’s likely the largest forensic lab submission of any case he’s worked on. That will take a significant amount of time for the state police laboratory — which handles all such requests statewide — to work through, he said.

In other cases, it could take over a year just to get evidence examined but understanding the public outcry and urgency over the case “they’ve moved us to the front of the line, so to speak,” Turner said. Due to the extreme care that has to be taken with items, they’re sent to the lab in batches.

The first batch — featuring those items “most likely to produce a result of some kind” — has already been sent but “it just is going to take some time,” Turner said.

Because of the intensive public interest in the case, investigators have also had to work through a flurry of non-credible tips, adding time on to the investigation.

“A lot of times we get tips, and we know it’s garbage, but we’ve got to go check it out because if you don’t maybe it would have been something,” Turner said.

Debbie Hall, Amber Spradlin’s cousin, speaks to a crowd about Spradlin’s murder during a press conference at the Floyd County Courthouse June 29, 2023. Rick Childress/
Debbie Hall, Amber Spradlin’s cousin, speaks to a crowd about Spradlin’s murder during a press conference at the Floyd County Courthouse June 29, 2023. Rick Childress/

Who was Amber Spradlin?

Spradlin was raised by her grandparents after her own mother was murdered when she was young, Martin said. She spent much of her adult life as a caregiver to her grandparents until they died.

In the months leading up to her murder, Spradlin had “just started to spread her wings,” Martin said. She’d just bought her first house, got the job at the restaurant, made friends and tried “to start a life.”

“That was the first time she was really on her own,” Martin said.

She was always the first to help, an animal lover and church-goer who didn’t drink or go to bars. Martin said her trip to one that night was “unheard of.”

The community’s work to honor her memory, much of which organized by her family, has sought to match Spradlin’s interests and character. An August prayer vigil attended by dozens of people raised supplies for the local animal shelter and the family has helped establish a scholarship in her name at the Big Sandy Community and Technical College. To raise money for the scholarship, they’ve already hosted an auction and plan to have a bass fishing tournament in October.

The 911 issue

Since the murder, Spradlin’s family has been publicly critical of the 911 response to the scene. The murder came months after Floyd County opted to switch its emergency 911 services from state police to a dispatching center run by the city government of Prestonsburg. At a July press conference, the family said they intended to build a lawsuit against the county that would seek to return dispatching responsibilities back to state police.

While state police have not released recordings of the calls, members of the Spradlin family were allowed to listen to the recordings in early August. Martin said he feels now that he shouldn’t have been allowed to hear the calls and alleged that Williams, the judge-executive, and Les Stapleton, the Prestonsburg mayor, were hurting the police investigation by letting others listen to it.

In a statement, Williams said he contacted the family and allowed them to listen to the recordings because the family had been told “inaccurate information about the number of E911 calls and their content.”

“The family heard, first-hand, all recorded E911 communications,” Williams said in the statement. “The family deserved accurate information about our community’s E911 response. Otherwise, the recorded calls have only been heard by authorized individuals and have not been disseminated publicly. While I’ve made public statements to reassure our citizens about our emergency services, including law enforcement, I have made great efforts to avoid releasing any information related to Amber’s murder or KSP’s investigation.”

Keith Bartley, the attorney for Floyd County, opposed the 911 switch since last year and was further critical of the change after Spradlin was murdered.

After Spradlin’s family announced their intention to sue the county in June, Bartley held a meeting with the fiscal court where he offered possible legal defenses for the county, the Floyd County Chronicle reported in a column from the paper’s publisher. In a letter following the meeting, Williams informed Bartley that the county would be hiring outside counsel because Bartley had a “disqualifying conflict of interest representing Floyd County about these events.”

“You are not acting as a lawyer representing a client; rather, you are acting as a lawyer representing himself,” Williams wrote in the letter.

The Floyd County Chronicle story also reported that Bartley had had contact with the homeowner the day that Spradlin’s body was discovered at his house. In a written response to Herald-Leader questions, Bartley said the homeowner had called him six hours after state police arrived at the scene and said someone had died at his home “under suspicious circumstances.”

“Pursuant to my ethical obligation, I stopped him and reminded him that I am a prosecutor and anything he said to me could and would be held against him in court,” Bartley said. “I then suggested that if he wanted to speak to an attorney, he should talk to an attorney that did criminal defense work.”

Bartley gave a summary of the conversation and screenshots from his phone noting the time and length of the call — “2 minutes” — to a state police detective, his statement said. KSP along with Turner, the Commonwealth’s attorney, are handling the murder investigation and Bartley has never been involved, he said.

“It is my opinion that all the political games and attacks being carried out by some in our county should stop immediately, so that the Kentucky State Police Detectives and the Commonwealth’s Attorney can concentrate on investigating, arresting and prosecuting the killer(s),” Bartley said.